IAF gets Rs.800 mn for US Red Flag drill

By Vishnu Makhijani, IANS

New Delhi : Brushing aside objections of the Left parties that support the government, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has finally been sanctioned Rs.800 million ($20 million) for participating in the prestigious Red Flag war games conducted by the US Air Force (USAF), an official said.

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“Yes, I can confirm that Rs.80 crore (Rs.800 million) has been sanctioned to the IAF to enable it participate in the Red Flag exercise,” the official told IANS, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“After the government gave its in-principle nod (earlier this year), it was only a matter of time before the fine print was resolved,” the official added.

A sticky point had been the money the US had been demanding by way of logistics support for India’s participation in the drill. There had been reports that the US had been asking for upwards of Rs.1 billion but after “hard negotiations” this had been brought down to “manageable levels”, the official said.

The IAF, which has already done considerable homework on the assets it will field during the exercise, has now gone into overdrive to finalise its plans.

Red Flag, an advanced aerial combat training exercise, has been hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and the Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, since 1975.

It is meant to train pilots from the US, NATO and other allied countries for real combat situations. This includes the use of “enemy” hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises.

The 414th Combat Training Squadron of the US Air Force 57th Wing conducts the exercises in four-to-six cycles a year. Each cycle runs for six weeks.

It is learnt that up to six IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI frontline combat jets will participate in the exercise, supported by a few Il-78 midair refuelling tankers and Il-76 heavy-lift transport aircraft.

“We have been pencilled in for July-August (2008) and will now finalise the dates,” the official said.

The final go-ahead is being seen as yet another indication of a paradigm shift in the thinking of India’s defence planners, who are increasingly looking at procedures adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in reworking their training procedures.

As for the Left objections to Red Flag, these are being viewed more as “academic” after the Communists’ climb down on the India-US civilian nuclear they had once bitterly opposed.

The Left has given its conditional approval to talks — that began last week — with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a safeguards agreement, following which India will approach the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for a waiver to enable resumption of nuclear commerce with India after a decades-long hiatus caused by the Pokharan tests of 1975.

As for the payment involved, the official saw “nothing unusual” in this.

“After all, the US pays us for participating in the (naval) Malabar war games (the last of which were conducted in September) so it’s only logical we pay for reciprocal support. The only question was the quantum and thankfully, this has now been resolved,” the official pointed out.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony has stoutly defended the participation of Indian armed forces in exercises like Red Flag, saying this improves inter-operability between the forces of friendly foreign countries.

“There is nothing new in holding or participating in such exercises as it gives an opportunity to the country’s armed forces to get acquainted with advanced technology,” the minister said last month.

“The government gives its approval if such exercises are necessary to test the preparedness of the armed forces,” Antony maintained, adding: “Such exercises are being held for quite some time. There’s nothing new in them.”

The Indian and US air forces have previously participated in joint drills but never on the scale of Red Flag.

As for the NATO procedures, the Indian armed forces adopted them for the first time during the five-nation Malabar-2007 war games in September, the biggest to be held in the Bay of Bengal.

These procedures have largely been evolved by the US and were familiar to the Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies that also participated in Malabar-2007 but were a first for the Indian Navy.

Indian Navy officers who participated in the drill were extremely pleased with the effort.

For example, in NATO-prescribed procedures, US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets operating from the carriers Nimitz and Kitty Hawk flew upwards of 20 ‘buddy’ refuelling sorties with the Indian Navy’s Sea Harriers flying from INS Viraat.

The NATO procedures were extended to other sectors of the exercise as well in areas like anti-submarine warfare drills and aerial offensive and defence manoeuvres.